As part of a series, TRT World explores stories of fascinating African personalities who have been largely ignored. From playing soccer in Turkey today to managing the Ottoman court and palace in the distant past, they go back a long way.

Photo post-card of the Chief Eunuch of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, photographed at the Imperial Palace.
Photo post-card of the Chief Eunuch of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, photographed at the Imperial Palace. (Wiki commons)

Think about Africans in Turkey and many tend to fall for stereotypes: Nigerian footballers practising in soccer fields of Istanbul or other immigrants selling sneakers, fake designer bags and perfumes in various urban centres. But take a deeper look, one begins to see a large number of students from the African continent studying in Turkey on scholarship programmes. 

But there's more to it. Africans share strong historic ties with Turkey as the Ottoman Empire, its predecessor state, not only recruited tens of thousands of Africans into its army but also employed a large number of them in both the royal court and palace. 

In the last few decades, as wars, conflicts, famines and chronic poverty have driven tens of thousands of Africans out of their home countries and pushed them to seek a new life in Western countries, Turkey has become their gateway to Europe. Over the years, the country has offered them such opportunities that a large number of Africans have given up on their European dream and settled down in several Turkish cities. 

Apart from the teeming population of African immigrants in Turkey, there's a 40,000-strong population of African-Turks whose ancestry can be traced back to the Ottoman era.

According to Ahmet Kavas, former Turkish ambassador to Chad, the Ottoman-Africans wielded strong power in the empire, especially the African eunuchs in harem, and the head eunuchs even elected viziers and governors for key provinces. 

"There is no doubt that the most influential one was Hadji Besher who managed Ottoman court between 1717-1746 for 29 years with such a power," Kavas, who's now a professor at Istanbul Medeniyet University, told TRT World. 

Kavas said that Besher was an important courtier for Sultan Mahmud I as he had earned the authority to "choose viziers and dismiss those he didn't want to work with". 

Many Africans headed the Ottoman harem and managed its court in Istanbul from 1623 to 1922. Besides Hadji Besher, black eunuch Abyssinians Mehmed Effendi and Morean Besher are considered to be among the most influential. 

Kavas said that Besher built mosques, libraries, inns and madrasas in Bursa, Izmir, Egypt, Romania, Mecca and Istanbul. He donated books, led the Ottoman Empire to build its first paper mill and activated it before passing away. He also wrote many historical epitaphs. He was known for his great talent in archery as there are still some obelisks that exist with his name in today’s Istanbul in Okmeydani. 

Contrary to the popular notion, the African eunuchs who worked for the Ottoman state were not castrated since the practice is forbidden in Islam. As per many historical accounts, Africans were generally castrated by slave traders who later sold them to the Ottoman rank and file. Once enrolled in the palace, they were sent to schools and universities for formal education.

The bright ones were provided scholarships for further education. While many were recruited in the Ottoman court and palace, many others served in the military. 

A drawing of a eunuch working at the harem of the Ottoman Imperial Palace
A drawing of a eunuch working at the harem of the Ottoman Imperial Palace (Professor Ekrem Bugra Ekinci)

At one point in Ottoman history, white eunuchs wielded too much power and engaged in corruption. The Sultans therefore turned to black eunuchs toward the end of the 16th Century. One of the main reasons for this preference was based on the fact that African eunuchs were distant, away from their blood relations, which made them immune to corruption and conspiracy. Their lives largely depended on the welfare of the sultan, while the sultan himself needed their assistance for a range of daily logistics. 

At a time when slavery was largely accepted in the Western world, the Ottoman Empire opposed it, especially the Atlantic slave trade to the United states, the Caribbean and Central and South America, where slaves generally worked in agricultural fields and coal mines. In Istanbul, however, Africans had access to power corridors of the Ottoman Empire as they worked with the imperial elite. 

In Turkey today,  African-Turks still exist in various cities. Their story is even older than the country's foundation. According to some estimates, their forefathers came freely as part of conquering armies while others were brought to Turkey as slaves. 

One of the African-Turks Sukru Seze from Izmir’s Naime Village told TRT World in 2018 that he has never questioned his roots. 

"I was born in Turkey, I feel Turkish, there is no difference,” he said.

Seze said his grandson, a university graduate, did research about the family's origin and found out they were originally from Sudan. 

“I don’t even know my grandfather's name. My mum’s mum died in the early stages of the war with the Greeks,” he said.

African-Turk Cakir Dogluer, 64, lives in the same village. He is the head of the Africans’ Culture and Solidarity Society which is meant to reconnect African-Turks and codify the oral histories in Turkey. 

Source: TRT World